Husband is Master.
EARLY MODERN HISTORY
ESSAYS / ARTICLES
To what extent are books of advice or "conduct books" accurate guides to the relationship between husbands and wives in the Tudor and Stuart Period?
To the writers of the Tudor and Stuart "books of advice on marriage", there is no doubt what a marriage
should be like. They set out clearly the roles of a husband and wife, and harshly criticised those who did not conform
to this prescribed ideal. If these "books of advice" were few and far between, then their contents, and perhaps their
very existence could be deemed insignificant, but because they are fairly numerous, and were published and republished
constantly in the latter half on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they must at least be considered worthy of
study. What is more, the arguments each advance are very similar in nature. When looking at these 'conduct books',
two fundamental questions arise. Firstly, do they actually reflect relationships between husbands and wives in this
period, or do they merely represent an ideal; an ideal that was ardently strived for, but badly fallen short of?
Before one can begin to answer these questions, it is perhaps necessary to look at what exactly these 'conduct books'
There were several prominent conduct book writers, among them William Whateley and William Harrington, but arguably
the most outstanding was William Gouge. His Of Domesticall Duties, written in 1622, was widely read and went into
several editions. These writers, whether Catholic or Protestant, were largely concerned with the power relationship
between spouses, and the duties of each. They fervently advocated the authority of the husband who was said to be both
the spiritual, and actual head of the marriage. Gouge stated ;
"He is the highest in the family, and has both authority over all and the charge of all is committed to his charge, he is as king in his own house." (1)
And Henry smith in 1591;
"Man is to his wife in the place of Christ to his church." (2)
A wife was to obey and submit herself to her husband in everything he commanded, as long as what he asked was not immoral, even if it was against her will. William Gouge stated;
"She may do nothing against God's will, but many things she must do against her own will if her husband require her." (3)
Once the writers had established the nature of the power-relationship between a married couple, they usually went on to describe the different duties belonging to each partner. Thomas Smith defined them as such;
"The man to travail abroad; the wife to save that which is gotten, to tarry at home, to distribute that which comes of the husband's labour for nurture of the children and family of them both, and to keep all at home neat and tidy." (4)
The two worldly spheres were thus easily divided between the sexes. The external world belonged to the husband, and the internal to the wife. Without a doubt a woman's place was very much within the home, her primary duty being to look after her husband and children, putting their needs and welfare before her own.
To what extent are these books an accurate reflection of a husband and wife relationship in the early modern period? It is perhaps difficult to say with any degree of certainty, as each marriage was unique, and the relationship between spouses depend then, as now, to a considerable extent on their individual characters, the circumstances surrounding the actual marriage, and their social status. A couple in exactly the same social position with the same number of children could have totally different kind of relationship. Yet it is perhaps possible to have internal differences, but for the framework of marriage to stay the same. Wrightson states;
"...each couple needed to work out for themselves their marital roles within the context of their general expectations of marriage." (5)
It is with the framework of marriage that the 'conduct book' writers are mainly concerned. They state what they believe the individual roles of a couple should be, but they leave some leave way in the actual everyday performance of these roles. As long as a wife acknowledged her inferiority, and behaved always in a way that befitted her status and role as wife and mother, then she could do whatever she liked. The married world the writers were advocating was not an arbitrary one, even if it would seem so by modern standards, as the emphasis was always on companionship, the need for love and affection, and the sharing of domestical duties. Henry Smith in his Preparative to Marriage stated;
"...a marriage is called Conjugium which signifieth a knitting or joining together, showing that unless there be a joining of hearts and knitting of affections together, it is not marriage indeed, but in show and name, and they shall dwell in a house like two poisons in a stomach and one shall ever be sick of the other." (6)
Dod and Cleaver put forward that husbands and wives should discuss important matters as long as the wife remembers who is the head and airs her opinions accordingly;
"She may in modest sort show her mind, and a wise husband will not disdain to hear her advice, and follow it also if it be good." (7)
The husband may have been superior, but he was not to be a tyrant, rather a loving guide and companion. The writers disagreed over whether a husband should use physical punishment against his wife, and although in general they believed that a husband did have the right to modestly chastise his wife if she was failing to live up to his expectations, it was not a recommended course of action.
Some historians believe that the 'conduct books' are a good indication of the relationship between husbands and wives, and the nature of the family in the early modern period. Ozment in his book When Father's Ruled, states;
"The advice of moralists may not have been so far from peoples actual practices as modern historians have tended to believe. The way life should be lived and the way it is lived, the ideal and the fact of existence, have a certain reciprocity." (8)
And Alison Wall believes that they do reflect expectations of marriage, especially expectations relating to the role of the wife. She states;
"Justices of the peace, and judges of the ecclesiastical court, expected women to be obedient to their husbands; to display due submission; to be chaste before and after marriage, and faithful during it." (9)
Certainly it can be seen from contemporary diaries and letters that there were marriages which fitted this mould. Isaac Archer said in 1668;
"I found my wife perfectly devoted to please me, and I blessed God for giving me one with a meek and quiet spirit, and well disposed, and apt to take in the best things. I found she was patient under her sickness, and willing to hear any instruction from me." (10)
And Thomas Folly in 1675;
"She was a most loving wife and tender nurse to me, if she at anytime offended me, she could not be quiet until she had acknowledged her offence and was reconciled." (11)
There is also some indication that these roles were accepted by women themselves. Lady Colton wrote to her daughter;
"You have subjected yourself to him and made him your head...it is an extreme obloquie and disgrace in the end to herself, to have the woman the talker, and over bouldly undertakenge to speak or answer her husband being in place." (12) However, it is debatable whether the 'conduct books' do accurately reflect a typical husband-wife relationship in this period. Philip Stubbes may have written in 1591 A Christal Glasse for Christian Women, and in it lavishly praised his deceased wife Katherine, who according to him was the model of womanhood, and so may have Thomas Folly and Isaac Archer so praised their wives, but arguably these wives, if they truly were so virtuous, were the exception. Had they been the norm, then there would have been no cause to venerate them, and it must be remembered that it was in the husband's own interest to present as favourable an image of his wife as he could as this would greatly enhance his own reputation.
The very existence of these books suggests that the ideal was not being reached. Doris Parsons comments on the works of William Whateley;
"It may at least be gathered from all this rhetoric that the married folk around Banbury were sorely in need of advice, that husbands tended to beat their wives and that wives were ready to scold their husbands." (13)
If everything is working as it should, there are no need for changes. A man who can drive hardly needs instructions. For such books to be published and to be widely dispersed, there must have been a demand, or if not a demand, at least a need. Far from accurately reflecting the status quo, it is likely that the books were the anti-thesis of what marriage was generally like. The very title of William Whateley's A Bride Bush alone suggests this;
"A Bride-Bush or A Wedding Sermon: Compendiously describing the duties of Married persons: By performing whereof, Marriage shall be to them a great Helpe which now finde it a little hell." (14)
Similarly William Gouge in his influential Of Domesticall Duties, outlines what the ideal relationship should be, and then goes on to say how badly it is being forsaken, especially by the wife. He says that wives should be meek, humble, obedient, should willingly subject themselves to their husbands, and always speak to them reverently, but, on the contrary is;
"...the wappish and shrewish disposition of many wives to thier husbands, who care not how hastily and unadvisedly they speak to them." (15)
"Contrary to the aforenamed subjection is the opinion of many wives, who think themselves every way as good as their husband, and no way inferior to them." (16)